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What does a tree surgeon do?
A tree surgeon is sometimes known as an arborist, arboriculturist or tree climber. If they work solely on the ground, they are called a grounds person. Tree surgery is a highly specialised job that requires evidence of the correct knowledge, skills and experience.
As the name suggests, a tree surgeon carries out various work on trees, including identifying hazards, assessing tree health, planting, felling, pruning and maintenance. They can work at different heights using equipment, such as a rope and harness or mobile elevated work platforms. The role also has an element of administrative work, such as report writing.
The main aim of a tree surgeon’s role is to care for trees, improve their health and preserve them where possible, without disturbing or harming wildlife. An additional aim is to protect people and property from being harmed by trees that pose a danger. Overall, tree surgery is about the sustainable management of trees.
A tree surgeon will work with many different clients (domestic and commercial) and colleagues. They may also be required to liaise with other external stakeholders, such as charities, local authorities, highways, electrical companies, contractors and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Some tree surgeons are employed by organisations which are usually small, but some can work with companies that have a few hundred employees. Some tree surgeons may choose to have their own business and become self-employed.
Tree surgery is a highly skilled occupation, and tree surgeons have many different responsibilities, which may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Inspection and surveying of trees and surrounding areas for hazards and damage.
- Carrying out hazard assessments to determine tree health and treatment.
- Carrying out health and safety risk assessments.
- Landscaping, including planting trees, hedges and shrubs.
- Trimming and pruning trees, hedges and shrubs.
- Climbing trees and/or using work at height equipment safely.
- Felling and removing trees, hedges and other vegetation.
- Stump grinding.
- Cutting and chipping branches and logs.
- Administrative tasks, e.g. writing tree survey reports.
- Liaising and dealing with clients and providing advice.
- Maintenance and servicing of equipment, e.g. chainsaws, log splitters and chippers.
- Carrying out pest control.
- Site clearance and tidying.
- Abiding by health and safety regulations and other relevant laws.
- Following applicable British Standards.
- Ensuring the necessary insurance is in place and valid.
- Liaising with Local Authorities regarding tree preservation orders.
- Reducing the spread of common tree pathogens, pests, diseases and disorders.
- Following company policies, procedures and risk assessments.
- Rescues from height and administering first aid.
A tree surgeon can expect to work between 41 and 43 hours a week. However, the number of hours is seasonal and weather dependent. It is not a 9-5 job and can include unsociable hours, such as evenings, weekends and bank holidays. However, the majority of work will usually be Monday-Friday.
Some tree work may need to be carried out at short notice, e.g. in an emergency, such as a tree falling into the highway. Therefore, there may be a requirement for tree surgeons to be on call.
No two days are the same for tree surgeons, and there is an element of travel involved to get to different jobs. They should expect to travel to various locations by road and may also have to walk to places that are more difficult to access. They may also need to work away from home on occasion.
What to expect
Being a tree surgeon is a demanding but rewarding role. They help preserve and protect trees, hedges and other vegetation, which will have a long-term benefit on human health, wildlife and the overall environment. Carrying out tree work can also protect property and keep people safe where trees are damaged and/or diseased. Tree surgeons can go home at the end of the working day knowing that their role is making a difference.
Boredom will never be a problem for tree surgeons, as their work is very varied, and they can work in many different locations. One day may involve planting a new woodland; the next may involve pruning a beautiful old oak tree. The role enables tree surgeons to travel around their region and be outdoors every day. There may also be opportunities to travel further afield and explore some new areas.
Even though being a tree surgeon is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, they may also face challenges, for example:
- Physical demands – tree work is a physically demanding role and requires a high level of fitness, e.g. climbing, manual handling and use of heavy equipment. On the upside, being fit has many health benefits.
- Health and safety risks – tree surgery is inherently dangerous. Therefore, workers will face many different hazards, e.g. work at height, falling timber and trees, use of heavy-duty machinery and chainsaws, insects and weather conditions. Tree work can also put other people at risk, e.g. members of the public. According to the HSE, during the last ten years, 24 tree surgeons/arborists have been killed during tree work, and nearly 1,400 have suffered an injury. The risks associated with tree work must not be taken lightly.
- Property damage risks – there is a risk of property damage if tree surgery is not carefully planned and executed. It is also why it is so vital to have the correct insurances.
Work at height is an integral part of a tree surgeon’s role. If an individual is not comfortable with aerial aspects of tree work or if they have any medical issues that could put them and others at risk, then tree surgery would not be the right career path for them.
There are pros and cons in every career choice, and prospective tree surgeons must know what to expect before deciding whether the role is for them. There is no doubt that carrying out tree work is extremely difficult. It is dangerous and physically demanding, requires work to be done in all types of weather and often at unsociable hours. However, there are many positives too, as trees are essential to humans, flora and fauna and the overall environment.
When considering whether to be a tree surgeon, individuals should weigh up the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a tree surgeon
Being a tree surgeon is physically and mentally demanding. It can also be hazardous and stressful, so they need to have the right personal qualities to be successful in the role.
Some of the personal qualities that a tree surgeon requires will include:
- Enjoy being outdoors in all types of weather.
- A keen interest in nature, ecology and conservation.
- Knowledge of trees and other vegetation, including common pathogens, pests, diseases and disorders.
- Knowledge of tree protection, wildlife and health and safety legislation.
- Good hazard perception and risk awareness.
- Having practical skills and can work effectively with their hands.
- Good communication skills, both written and verbal.
- Good customer service skills.
- Good problem solving and analytical skills.
- Map reading skills.
- Good physical skills, e.g. physically fit with good movement and coordination.
- Good time management.
- Being thorough and having attention to detail.
- Being responsible and diligent.
- Having resilience and the confidence to carry out strenuous work in challenging conditions.
- Willingness to work as part of a team and with others.
- The ability to work under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to use IT equipment for basic tasks, e.g. writing reports.
- The ability to work with and maintain different tools and machinery.
- Having the fitness and capability to work at height.
There are many different ways to become a tree surgeon. One way is by taking a relevant university or college qualification or enrolling on an apprenticeship.
Course levels – foundation degree, higher national diploma or degree.
Entry requirements –
– Foundation degree (one or two A levels or equivalent).
– Higher national diploma or degree (two or three A levels or equivalent).
Example courses – forestry, arboriculture, forest management, woodland ecology and conservation and countryside management.
Course levels – level 2 and 3 courses.
– Level 2 – two or more GCSEs at grades 9 to 3 (A* to D) or equivalent.
– Level 3 – four or five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent.
Example courses – Level 2 Certificate in Arboriculture, Level 2 Work-based Trees and Timber, Level 2 Felling and Processing Trees and Level 3 Diploma in Forestry and Arboriculture.
On-the-job training and volunteering
There are no set academic requirements to become a tree surgeon. Therefore, gaining qualifications is not the only route into the role. However, some employers may stipulate that specific qualifications are required, e.g. GCSEs.
There may be an opportunity to become a grounds person (who helps tree surgeons from the ground) and learn on the job. There are also opportunities to attend relevant training courses whilst working, e.g. using chainsaws, harnesses and ropes. On-the-job training can lead to becoming a tree surgeon with the right experience, training and supervision.
There is no substitute for practical experience, and volunteering can also help individuals understand what is involved in tree work and build their knowledge and skills. There are charities, conservation organisations and horticultural groups that can help provide practical experience, e.g. the Woodland Trust and the National Trust.
Having any work experience relevant to tree work, e.g. gardening, can be beneficial and can help an individual work towards becoming a tree surgeon.
Learning does not stop once someone becomes qualified. As well as having the necessary qualifications, tree surgeons also require training to gain certificates of competence before being permitted to work at height, with machinery or on their own.
City & Guilds NPTC certificates of competence are gained for attending short courses, e.g. at a college or an accredited private training provider. Some examples of relevant courses that may be useful for tree surgeons include:
- Level 2 Certificate of Competence in Chainsaw Maintenance and Cross-cutting – also known as C30 & 201/202.
- Level 2 Certificate of Competence in Felling Small Trees up to 380mm – also known as C31 & 203.
- Level 2 Certificate of Competence in Tree Climbing and Aerial Rescue – also known as C38 & 206/306.
- Level 3 Certificate of Competence in Aerial Cutting of Trees with a Chainsaw Using Free-fall Techniques – also known as C39 & 308.
There are also equivalent courses run by Lantra.
Professional bodies, such as the Arboricultural Association and the Royal Forestry Society, also provide reputable training courses and certification to help individuals become tree surgeons and give them the means to continue their professional development.
Other relevant training
Tree surgeons may also find it useful to have the following training:
- First aid at work.
- Pesticides, e.g. PA1 & PA6.
- Mobile elevated working platform (MEWP) certification and card, e.g. IPAF.
- Hiab training, e.g. RTITB.
- Additional health and safety training, e.g. PUWER, LOLER, manual handling and work at height.
- Level 3 Certificate of Competence in Aerial Tree Pruning – also known as C40.
- Level 3 Certificate of Competence in Aerial Tree Rigging – also known as C41.
- Level 2 Certificate of Competence in Manually Fed Wood Chipper Operations or Lantra equivalent.
- CSCS card (construction) and Sentinel (rail).
- Other landscaping, e.g. fencing.
The type of training required will depend on what employers are looking for and the areas in which tree surgeons specialise. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the common training courses required for tree surgeon roles and other training needed for specialist tasks.
Having more relevant training and competence will open up more opportunities for tree surgeons. Refresher training will also be required, as it is a legal requirement under health and safety legislation, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.
As tree surgeons will be required to travel to different jobs, a full clean driving licence is required (including categories B and E). Some jobs may also require a towing licence (e.g. to tow machinery such as a chipper) and a category C1 licence to drive vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes.
Where do tree surgeons work?
Tree surgeons can work for various domestic and commercial clients, such as private homeowners and landowners, public authorities, charities, churches and private companies.
They will work in a variety of outdoor locations in cities, towns and villages, such as:
- Recreational areas.
- Car parks.
- Highways, including streets.
- Canal towpaths.
Some locations can be tricky to access, and the terrain can be challenging. Some work locations can have additional hazards that tree surgeons need to be aware of, e.g. vehicles on roads.
Tree surgeons can expect to work in all types of weather and often at height. Tree work can be noisy, dusty and dirty work. Therefore, individuals will need to be comfortable wearing heavy personal protective equipment and safety gear.
How much do tree surgeons earn?
The salary a tree surgeon will earn will depend on their qualifications, experience, location and whether they choose to be self-employed.
An entry-level tree surgeon’s starting salary will be around £16,000 a year, which is for an individual with very little or no experience.
The more qualifications and experience a tree surgeon has, the more their their salary will increase. A senior tree surgeon can earn up to £30,000 a year and in some cases (depending on location), £45,000 a year. The average salary for a tree surgeon is £25,000 a year.
As an apprentice, salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long an individual has been in their apprenticeship. Some employers will offer £200–£300 a week to apprentice tree surgeons/arborists.
Types of tree surgery to specialise in
There are many different techniques involved in tree surgery. Therefore, there are plenty of opportunities for tree surgeons to specialise in various aspects of tree surgery, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- Crown lifting – removing some of the lower branches to increase the distance from the lowest branch to the ground, e.g. preventing them from being an obstruction or a hazard.
- Crown reduction – shortening the branches of certain tree species to reduce the height or spread of the crown.
- Crown thinning – the careful selection and cutting of branches to enable the crown to get more air and light without affecting the shape.
- Dead wooding – removing dead branches to improve tree health and prevent them from becoming a risk to people and property below.
- Tree felling – cutting down a tree from the ground.
- Sectional tree felling – cutting down a tree in sections, which is usually carried out if the whole tree cannot be felled, e.g. because of obstructions and hazards.
- Limb and branch removal – removal of branches within a crown (not lifting, reducing or thinning), e.g. removing a branch over a neighbouring property.
- Stump and root removal – once a tree has been completely felled, the remaining stump and roots may need to be removed.
- Fallen tree removal – removing trees that have fallen naturally, e.g. due to disease, old age and high winds.
- Pollarding – removing the majority of limbs and branches from younger trees.
- Hedge maintenance – to keep hedges healthy, they need to be trimmed and sometimes reduced in height.
- Root pruning – cutting back the roots to encourage new root growth.
All different tree work techniques will require differing skills. However, most tree surgeons will need to have the knowledge and skills to remove and prune trees, carry out aerial work and remove stumps. Any additional areas of expertise required will depend on what a company is looking for in a tree surgeon and the type of work a tree surgeon wants to carry out.
If tree work is not carried out properly, it can cause irreparable damage to the tree, encourage disease and increase the risk of the tree harming people and/or damaging property. Therefore, tree surgeons must have the necessary competence (knowledge, skills and experience) to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency and not carry out techniques if they have not been trained and are not competent.
Standards, tree work techniques and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, tree surgeons need to keep abreast with the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain legally compliant and ensure they carry out tree work correctly and safely. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives tree surgeons the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them progress in their career.
Joining a professional body can help prospective and current tree surgeons enhance their skills and overall career prospects. The Arboricultural Association and the Royal Forestry Society offer different levels of membership, CPD and access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression within the industry. With more qualifications and experience, a tree surgeon can become a team leader or manager. Alternatively, they may decide to have their own tree surgery business and become self-employed.
Having the knowledge and skills associated with tree surgery, e.g. climbing using harnesses and ropes, can also lead to a career in different industries. For example, running outdoor activities, such as treetops ropes courses, and even wood carving.
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